Carbon 29ers Square Off
Cannondale Scalpel 29er Carbon 1 vs. the Scott Spark 29 RC
Two of the most talked-about bikes for 2012 are the
Cannondale Scalpel 29 and the Scott Spark 29. Both are new models from
companies with a history of producing 26- inch-wheeled race bikes that push the
limits of technology and aesthetics. In keeping with that tradition, these
high-end 29-inch-wheeled race bikes are vying for superiority. We decided that
since these two bikes will meet in battle on the cross-country racecourses of
the world, we should pit them against one another on our favorite cross-country
WHO ARE THEY MADE FOR?
These bikes fall on the cross-country race end of the trailbike
spectrum. They are designed to be race bikes first with a bent toward rough
courses and longer, endurance-style events. Cannondale and Scott designed both
bikes with enough plushness so that they could be used as everyday trailbikes
in the right conditions.
WHAT ARE THEY MADE FROM?
Both of these bikes are carbon fiber works of art. The Scalpel features
Cannondale’s BallisTec HI-MOD carbon fiber, a military-grade carbon fiber
designed to increase durability without sacrificing ride quality or stiffness.
The rear end features a 142x12-millimeter rear axle and seat stays that flex
rather than using pivots. Cannondale beefs up the rear suspension’s other
pivots with the same 15-millimeter pivots found on the company’s more
aggressive all-mountain bikes. The Scott Spark is made from Scott’s HMX and HMF carbon with their IMP 5
construction technique, laying up the front triangle as one piece. According to
Scott, this makes it easier to fine-tune stiff
ness, durability and ride
quality. The rear triangle is constructed of the same IMP 5 technology as the
front triangle and features a chainstay post mount for the rear brake molded
into the design. The Spark also features the unique ability to raise and lower
the bottom bracket
height via the mounting
hardware for the shock. The bottom
bracket height can be raised or lowered about a quarter-inch, which changes the
headtube angle by 0.5 degrees.
WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?
These top-of-the-line models from Cannondale and Scott are both equipped
with some well-known performers, such as SRAM’s XX drivetrain, DT Swiss wheels
and Schwalbe tires. In many cases, though, Cannondale and Scott offer some
trick components and technologies developed specifically for them. The Scalpel
comes with Cannondale’s Hollowgram SL aluminum crankset and a Lefty 29er XLR
carbon fork (technically a strut) with a handlebar-mounted, remote lockout from
RockShox and their One-Piece Integration (OPI) stem. The Spark features their TwinLoc lever and RockShox DNA 3 system.
Previously, this lever was only used to control the shock. Now, the DNA 3
system allows the TwinLoc lever to control the suspension travel of the fork
and shock simultaneously. The suspension has three settings: open, traction
mode and locked out. The RockShox SID 29 RLT3 fork and DT Swiss Nude2 shock are
custom tuned for the three modes with 3.9 inches of travel in open, diminishing
to 2.7 inches in traction mode.
HOW DO THEY PERFORM?
We rode both bikes on two- to three-hour group rides on our normal loops
and then compared them head to head on a shorter cross-country loop where
elapsed time and rider input could be more easily compared.
Scalpel: Riders unfamiliar with the Lefty fork will find their attention fixed on
the one-legged wonder. However, setting up the Lefty is similar to any other
fork out there. The only hassle was that while setting the sag—with no
traditional fork tube with a rubber O- ring to gauge travel—we needed a buddy
to measure the fork sag for us while we were on the bike. The position on the bike is slightly forward without going to an extreme
race position. We could tell that Cannondale did their homework in the geometry
department when we first threw a leg over the bike. The Truvativ handlebar is
27.5 inches wide and felt right at home on the 29er. The grips are lock-ons
made by Cannondale, and while not the most comfortable, they were durable and
felt fine with gloves.
Spark: Getting set up on the Spark was straightforward. The RockShox fork is
equipped with a pressure chart to give you a starting point and built-in sag
gradients on the fork stanchion. We set the fork and shock to 25-percent sag
and were off. The Spark’s two bottom bracket positions make for a versatile
bike. We started out with the bike in
the low position, but switching between
modes is easy. Simply unthread the lower shock- mount bolt and flip the
mounting hardware inserts180 degrees.
The bike is outfitted with Ritchey
components, including WCS carbon bars measuring 27.5 inches wide for good
control. The Ritchey saddle is comfort-
able and never caused us any trouble.
The riding position is comfortable, regardless of the bottom bracket height,
but the difference between each setting was noticeable within the first couple
of pedal strokes. The two positions seemed to be somewhere on either end of the
Scalpel’s geometry, with the high setting placing you over the bars and the low
riding more like a 5-inch-travel trailbike. The setting is a matter of personal
preference, and each has its advantages.
Scalpel: Cannondale wanted to make a 29er that could roll as well as any bike out
there without giving up the quick handling that 26er riders have grown
accustomed to. The Scalpel does this with ease. The tight wheelbase, steep head
tube and low weight make this bike a blast to throw around tight corners—all
while rolling like a runaway freight train. Despite the bike’s tight handling
characteristics on loose, sweeping corners, riding in a more neutral position
allows the bike to track confidently. That the bike comes spec’ed with Schwalbe
Racing Ralph tires—one of our favorite models for our Southern California
conditions—only helped the Scalpel’s case.
Spark: We experimented with both bottom bracket positions back to back, and we
kept coming back to the feel in corners. In the low position, the bike feels
stable and loves to sit into corners, especially standing on the pedals. The
handling is slowed down a bit in this setting thanks to the .5 degree-slacker
head tube angle, but the bike never felt sluggish, even on technical trails at
slower speeds. In the high position, while great when the trails were tightest,
the bike’s steering was too quick for fast sections of trail or downhills. In
this position, the Spark is one hyper-handling package.
Scalpel: With many dual-suspension 29ers, climbing is great once you have
momentum on your side; getting to that point is always the trouble, though.
This is not the case with the Scalpel. The bike’s light weight, lateral
stiffness and stable yet effective pedaling platform are well balanced. You
stay hooked up and moving forward without losing traction—unless you really
unweight the rear tire. The crew praised the instant power transfer; the effort
you put in is exactly what you get out of the bike. In fact, on a climb we’ve
been riding for years, one of our crewers set his fastest time by over 30
seconds with less effort. For most climbing, we kept the Lefty fork unlocked and the Fox RP23
shock on the “1” setting. While riding in the softer end of the ProPedal
settings, thanks to the efficient suspension design, this gave us the right
amount of bump compliance for climbing without ever feeling like we were
wasting energy by way of pedal bob. However, on fire roads or paved sections,
the fork’s remote handlebar lockout was greatly appreciated.
Spark: Much like the Scalpel, the Spark knows how to get uphill. The bike does,
however, perform differently at the low and high bottom bracket heights. The
high setting has a great climbing feel, putting more weight on the front end.
In the low setting, we were more apt to use the traction control mode to
counteract the squatty feel and increased movement from the rear suspension.
The TwinLoc system was especially useful when transferring from climbing to
other segments of trail. We appreciated the ease of one lever controlling the
front and rear suspension. While the Scalpel’s separate on-the-fly suspension
adjustments didn’t seem to be an issue before riding the Spark, the ease of the
TwinLoc made everything else seem tedious.
Scalpel: Being a race-oriented rig, the Scalpel is not a bike that you can just
smash down any section with out getting rattled. In exchange for the awesome
pedaling platform, the rider has to soak up downhill chop with skill. Hammering
down rough sections, the Scalpel never feels like it is giving the rider a true
3.9 inches of travel from the rear suspension; it feels closer to an inch less
than that. What the bike does do is take the edge off of the rough stuff. With the
quick handling that we couldn’t get enough of while cornering comes some
instability on high-speed, rough descents. Thankfully, that same quick handling
makes it a blast to bob and weave around the trail searching for good lines.
The Scalpel is very capable, but it requires some finesse to find the smoothest
way down extra-rough trails.
Spark: On our first ride on the Spark, we had the bottom bracket adjusted to
the low setting. While the climbing and maneuvering at slow speeds couldn’t
compete with the Scalpel’s prowess, we saw quite quickly where the Spark had
the edge: high-speed descents. We were amazed by how stable the bike felt on
rutted, nasty downhills, soaking up small chatter and keeping us pointed in the
right direction, which resulted in tons of confidence. In the TwinLoc’s open
mode, the Spark has a plushness that can’t be matched by the Scalpel. The
Scalpel rides just like the Spark on the descents—if you forget to take the
Spark out of its traction mode. The difference is that noticeable. On our second ride, we switched the bottom bracket height to the high
position. We should have done it the other way around. While this position is
perfectly acceptable, after riding the more stable, low setting, this new mode
left us feeling more than a bit nervous on some of the same descents where we
felt so confident earlier.
Scalpel: With the SRAM X0 brakes, control is the name of the game. The brakes
never wowed us with tons of power, but the modulation was excellent. This was
especially important to us during our test period, as high winds had left our
trails very dry and loose. As with descending, the rear suspension seemed a bit
harsh under hard braking and had some trouble remaining active. Grabbing too
much lever on a descent resulted in a locked rear wheel.
Spark: The Spark comes stock with SRAM XX brakes. While the brakes are a step
up from the X0s in SRAM’s product line, they don’t deliver more power. They had
a positive feel and were easy to modulate, but didn’t expose any glaring
weaknesses in the X0’s armor. Heavy braking had less of an effect on the Spark
than on the Scalpel. The rear suspension remained active and supple when on the
TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
We couldn’t help but feel that the Scott would benefit from a
15-millimeter thru-axle fork. It seemed odd to leave this performance boost on
the table, especially on a bike of this caliber with 29-inch wheels. The Fizik
saddle on the Cannondale is definitely on the racing end of the spectrum. The
saddle wasn’t bad, but riders with limited hours in the saddle per week or
flexibility issues will want to swap it out. After looking at both bikes’ price
tags, you would hope there wouldn’t be any upgrades needed to make these bikes
great, and for everyday riding, that is the case. You could go with some
super-lightweight wheels for race day, but component-wise, these rigs are
dialed out of the box.
Both bikes come with tubeless-ready tires and rims, so
we suggest converting to tubeless for added performance. Unfortunately, our
Scalpel did not come with a chainstay protector. We put one on before riding to
prevent chain-slap noise and damage to the frame.
Both of these bikes are amazing machines, and we would be ecstatic to
throw a leg over either one at any time. This shootout actually felt like a
three-way race: Scalpel versus Spark (high bottom bracket) versus Spark (low
bottom bracket). Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. While the Spark in
the low-bottom-bracket position can outperform the Scalpel on descents, you
have to switch to the high-bottom-bracket position to match the Scalpel on climbs.
Unfortunately, you can’t do this on the trail. The adjustability of the Spark has the potential to make or break the
deal. Riders who love the idea of testing out different settings in an endless
search for the perfect ride will enjoy that aspect of the Spark. However, for
every one of those riders we know, there are five who would rather set the sag
and go. If we were racing, or looking to attack the trail with our buddies, the
Scalpel would be our choice, no doubt about it. Its efficiency and razor sharp
handling are unmatched. For rougher trails where descending properties and
stability were the deciding factors, the Spark would be our go-to machine.